On the heels of their biggest win of the season, Real Madrid traveled to the sight of their Décima triumph to face Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League. Captain Sergio Ramos returned to the lineup after an extended absence as manager Zinedine Zidane again elected to employ a 4-4-1-1 featuring Isco tucked in behind Ronaldo, who essentially played as a striker. Lisbon pressed Real high up the pitch from the outset, showing the serious danger they posed to the holders. Madrid’s modified formation again sought to feature Gareth Bale, who often got into full stride on the left side of the pitch - his more natural side.
The match opened on an even keel, with both teams creating decent opportunities, as play was open. Gareth Bale and Ronaldo’s continued improved chemistry and interplay was noteworthy, as the two combined early and often. Raphael Varane opened the scoring in the 29th minute after Ronaldo won a free kick with a nifty step-over on the right wing; the French international tapped home a loose ball inside of the six yard box. Madrid, however, showed their trademark defensive frailty and allowed Sporting back into the match. A frantic first half ended with Madrid holding onto their slim lead.
The second half began worryingly for Real Madrid as Marcelo went down without contact, but the Brazilian soon returned. The match remained open, with Madrid not able to take full control - something of a recurring problem so far this year. Soon after Marcelo’s injury scare, Bale had one of his own; however, the Welshman had to be withdrawn and replaced by Marco Asensio. A moment of a madness ensued shortly thereafter when João Pereria was sent off after a bit of a malicious, albeit light, contact on Mateo Kovacic. Madrid pressed on for a second goal, but failed to extend their advantage. Los Merengues were made to pay for this when substitute Fabio Coentrao conceded a bonehead penalty - with his arms in a shockingly unnatural position - that ten man Sporting readily converted.
Almost instantly after Sporting had a great chance to take the lead, substitute Karim Benzema scored a magnificently glanced header off of a sublime Sergio Ramos cross, giving Madrid a 2-1 lead in the 87th minute. With Sporting deflated, Madrid managed to get their first away victory in the competition this season.
While Real did get the three points and look fluid in their new formation, their performance was far from perfect. The match marked the second time this season that Madrid needed late heroics against the Portuguese side, and served as evidence of their knack for scoring late goals. Yet, the side was completely incapable of “going for the kill,” something that will need to improve for Zidane’s men.
With the three points in tow, Madrid are guaranteed a place in the last 16 of the tournament, where they will at least look to extend their run of six consecutive semifinal appearances. As their progress in Europe is assured, Madrid can now almost taste El Clásico, which is in two weeks time. Hopefully the ankle injury that Bale sustained will not be too serious, as a Madrid side hampered by injuries cannot afford to lose their most explosive player.